WASHINGTON: Last summer, the Wayne Rooney effect was very real for DC United.
With the former England captain on board, the latter part of the season contained a verve and joy akin to an extended summer vacation.
The Black and Red went 11-2-4 down the stretch to secure a playoff spot, a feat that seemed beyond DCU earlier in the season.
The first-round playoff defeat to the Columbus Crew seemed a mere hiccup in terms of United's ascent back among the league's elite.
Ten games into 2019, the magic, both for Rooney and the team, has been harder to lock down. There have been stretches of dynamic play, mixed with DC getting backed into its own half for extended periods.
The inconsistency has been such that a look at the Eastern Conference standings causes something of a double take. The rough patches, in particular a 4-0 home shellacking at the hands of LAFC, stick in the memory, and yet there sits DC United, tied for first place in the conference alongside the Philadelphia Union and the Montreal Impact.
DC hosts Columbus on Saturday (8pm ET or 8am Singapore time on Sunday) in hopes of remaining out front in the East.
"It's weird that we're still in first place in the East," said DCU defender Steven Birnbaum. "It doesn't feel like that for us because we've had a couple of bad losses. We're in a good position, but we think we can be much further up."
It's worth noting that United has been dealing with a normal schedule instead of the home-heavy slate from which it benefited during the back half of 2018. There have been injuries to the team's complement of outside backs, forcing a formation switch, which has had a ripple effect throughout the team. For that reason, DC manager Ben Olsen isn't sweating his team's current state.
"I think if you had asked me in January if I'd take 17 points at this point in the season, I'd probably be OK with that," he said. "It's been a little bit of a grind the last couple of weeks and we've chugged along."
The same has been true for Rooney. Year 2 was always bound to bring some different challenges. The travel will be felt more acutely. Teams are a bit more familiar with how Rooney and Luciano Acosta - Robin to Rooney's Batman - operate. But in terms of numbers, Rooney keeps on keeping on, with five goals and three assists in nine appearances. His value in the locker room remains solid gold.
"I think that's what so great about Wayne," Olsen said. "He's not a guy that's different from day to day, or week to week, or season to season. He does what he does. He's a good teammate. He's engaged in the process. He's engaged with his teammates, it matters to him, he's competitive, he shows up whether it's in training or in games. And he makes plays. He's respected by the group. People want to know: Has he changed? It's been more of the same."
Yet Rooney has no doubt suffered as a result of the injury bug claiming outside backs Chris McCann and Joseph Mora. Those injuries forced Olsen to go with three central defenders in the back. The wing-backs have found it more difficult to get into the attack, resulting in Rooney and Acosta getting isolated at times.
There's also been a bit of Superhero Syndrome, where Rooney - and, to a lesser extent, Acosta - is expected to save the day.
"One of our issues is we need to threaten the space behind so now we can free up Lucho and Wayne," Olsen said. "At times we put too much weight and responsibility on those two being our offensive production. Now we have to find ways to come out in other areas on the field, with other players and positions to be real threats that other teams have to deal with to free up what we think is a very good duo."
There are also other factors. Birnbaum surmised that teams have been more physical with Acosta this season in a bid to disrupt DCU's rhythm, and the numbers back him up. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Acosta has been fouled 2.40 times per game this season compared to 1.97 in 2018. Acosta's contract situation - his deal is up at the end of the season - looms as well.
DC United has managed to ride out this stretch, although a trade reveals that Olsen is eager to return to the form and style that propelled the side last season, even in the opening weeks of the 2019 campaign. DC on Friday completed a deal to acquire outside back Marquinhos Pedroso from FC Dallas. That will allow United to revert to a four-back alignment.
"We certainly view (Pedroso) as that type of player, that's his best spot on the field," Olsen said about the presumptive left-back. "It does give us that flexibility to move back until Joseph (Mora) returns. Then it's also important to have two quality guys in every position. I think that (trade) gives us that."
Yet DCU finds itself in a different year, a different place, a different mindset, even if many of the faces are the same.
"I think we just had more urgency towards the end of last year and knowing that if we didn't win this game we'd be out of the playoffs," Birnbaum said. "So I think that's what's lacking from us: urgency and energy."
Perhaps with those additions, the Rooney effect will make a return.
This article first appeared on ESPN.com.